In the U.S., most of the news coverage of Iran focuses on economic sanctions and renewed geopolitical tensions. The current Middle Eastern republic, previously known as Persia, is only about 40 years old and commonly evokes images of natural resources, religion, and revolution — but not usually another “r” word, robotics. At the same time, Iranian robotics has made some advances.
According to the CIA’s World Factbook, Iran boasts a population about 82 million, with a median age of 28.8 and a gross domestic product of more than $1.3 trillion. Let’s see how recent Iranian robotics developments add to our understanding of the country.
Iranian robotics is unconventional
Part of Iran’s robotics journey involves robots that are unique to Iran. In 2016, Ikap Robotics won a startup award at Automatica with an “intelligent robotic suitcase” named Olive. A person can ride the suitcase like a Segway. Olive is self-balancing and has a built-in camera that enables it to follow its owner.
That same year, Iranian professor Berok Khoshnevis at the Viterbi School of Engineering at the University of Southern California announced that he had been working for 20 years on enabling robots to construct buildings with 3D printing.
NASA is considering the technology, called selective separation sintering (SSS), for building structures on the moon or Mars.
An Iranian schoolteacher developed a robot to motivate students to pray. The robot is called Veldan, which means “Youth of Heaven,” and it uses visual movements to capture the attention of young children.
In addition, Tehran-based RTS Labs developed PARS, an aerial drone equipped with life rings to rescue people in the sea. The company has experienced financial difficulties.
Iranian robotics demonstrates that the country’s researchers are part of the global automation ecosystem. Could Iran export its innovations to grow its influence by, say, sending robotic construction crews to help other countries with their infrastructure? Note that Iran is part of China’s expansive “Silk Road” trade initiative.
Sanctions prompt domestic development of healthcare robots
U.S. sanctions have played a role in the development of new technologies. While surgery-assisting robots were once developed exclusively in the U.S., such robots were prohibited for export to Iran because of sanctions. Researchers at the Sharif University of Technology and the Tehran University of Medical Sciences developed SINA.
“This robotic system can be used in most of the surgical operations, particularly prostate surgery, and using robotic arms with sufficient degrees of freedom, significantly reduces damage to healthy tissues, bleeding, and the duration of recovery,” explained Dr. Farzam Farahmand, a faculty member of the Mechanical Engineering Department at Sharif University.
Humanoid robots make strides
As seen in its robotic soccer (or football) victories at last year’s RoboCup Asia-Pacific, Iranian robotics includes humanoid advances. Researchers at the University of Tehran have refined their Surena humanoid robot, releasing a smaller version. Surena Mini is competitive in price with SoftBank Robotics’ Nao, according to the IEEE, and the humanoid robot market could grow by 40% by 2024.
Surena III, the Mini’s predecessor, was named after an ancient general and is more than 6 feet tall. It could interact in Farsi, autonomously play soccer, navigate uneven terrain, and hold objects. Like other humanoid robots, this has potential household or military uses.
Military strategy includes automation
Robotics is a core part of Iran’s current and future military strategy. For instance, Islamic Azad University in Central Iran has created three types of military robots for bomb-sweeping, military, and rescue missions. The rescue robot can identify wounded soldiers and bring them to safety, while the military model can be equipped with weaponry.
Back in 2015, Brigadier General Ahmad Reza Pourdastan claimed that remote-controlled robots equipped with missiles or machine guns would accompany Iranian troops in the “near future.” During Iran’s Armed Forces Day that year, an unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) called Nazir was on display.
Popular Science reported that Nazir features a camera turret, small clusters of grenade dischargers, a mechanical arm, and “what appears to be the cylindrical casings for two missiles.”
At a biomedical engineering forum, researchers at Amirkabir University of Technology in Tehran unveiled an exoskeleton. In addition to healthcare uses, the exoskeleton could help soldiers transport cargo.
After holding competitions such as the “Iran Drone Prix,” which tested home-grown unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for speed and indoor navigation, the country has reverse-engineered U.S. technology and shared it with its allies.
Last year, the Israeli military, which has its own investments in robotics and drones, said it shot down an Iranian UAV being used by Hezbollah. The Shi’ite militia has also used drones in fighting the Islamic State, or ISIS.
In February, Israel shot down an Iranian drone that it said was based on a U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel that was shot down in 2011.
Iranian robotics and the global economy
Iranian robotics is progressing on may fronts, but the country’s civilian research and military drones are part of a larger picture.
While Tehran hoped to get access to billions of dollars frozen in banks around the world because of the controversial “Iran Deal” for nuclear disarmament, the U.S. withdrawal from that agreement could still help Iranian robotics.
Iran has allied itself with Russia and China in providing a geopolitical axis, or alternative to the West. This axis includes cooperation in energy, defense, and investment.
Research firm The Jamestown Foundation recently reported that both Iran and China may soon join Russia in participating in testing military UAVs in organized international competitions. In addition, Russia could benefit from Iranian robotics research.
Iranian robotics is part of the country’s plan to be geopolitically relevant, whether it’s through innovation or through military and economic alliances.